Reviving San Francisco’s Failed Civic Center
by Randy Shaw‚ May. 10‚ 2011
In her 1961 classic, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs observed of San Francisco’s Civic Center that “people stayed away” from it “to a remarkable degree.” Jacobs felt the Civic Center was “trouble” from the start, as it “repelled vitality and gathered around itself instead the blight that typically surrounds these dead and artificial places.” As the city tries to revitalize Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin, and has increased activities at UN Plaza, energizing underutilized Civic Center Plaza would boost all three areas. But this requires a new vision and new uses for Civic Center Plaza in order to attract more people to the area. Will San Francisco tolerate a dead spot in an area designed for civic beauty and public enjoyment for another fifty years, or follow the lead of other cities and transform its largest public square into a popular destination?
After spending considerable time in New York City’s Bryant Park in recent years, I continually wondered why a similar transformation could not occur at San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza. Little did I know that Jane Jacobs had foreseen Civic Center’s failures over fifty years ago, and that virtually nothing has been done to address the lack of vitality in what should be a bustling and successful area.
Civic Center and its Environs
Jacobs saw the core problem with San Francisco’s Civic Center is its distance from “high-intensity downtown offices and shops.” Surrounded by large public buildings closed on evenings and weekends, and with only the Main Library and Asian Art Museum drawing people in non-work hours, Civic Center Plaza has been a dead space for nearly 100 years.
And just as Jacobs predicted, Civic Center’s deadness has impacted adjacent neighborhoods. We know about the long decline of Mid-Market and the Uptown Tenderloin, but check out the failed restaurants along Van Ness north of City Hall, and on Golden Gate, where from 1984-99 Stars was the favored dining establishment of the city’s elite.
Instead of being an area that attracts people to adjacent neighborhoods, Civic Center Plaza only brings customers to nearby businesses when the San Francisco Giants hold victory parades. And despite being the largest green belt within walking distance of thousands of children in the Uptown Tenderloin lacking a park, Civic Center does nothing to serve the needs of this community.
It’s time to transform Civic Center Plaza from an area focused on keeping homeless persons out to one that seeks to get residents in.
Energizing Civic Center
A square of exclusively public buildings offers a much more difficult challenge than was faced by those seeking to transform Bryant Park from a drug haven to one of New York City’s most popular spots. Bryant Park is surrounded by office buildings that bring people into the area, and is adjacent to the historic Main Library, another major drawing card.
Since Civic Center’s surrounding buildings will not generate sufficient activity even during workdays, the uses of the Plaza must be changed. The coffee stand on the northern side and the small playground to the east are steps in the right direction, but much more is needed.
One thought is to expand both food and recreation functions. This means a high quality, destination food truck modeled on the “Shake Shack” in New York City’s Madison Park. Connected to the additional dining opportunities would be a vast expansion of the chairs and small tables already present at the coffee stand.
It also means taking at least a third and possibly as much as half of the park area and converting it to recreational uses.
The Uptown Tenderloin is the only San Francisco neighborhood with thousands of children and no real park. What is called a “park” – Boedekker Park at Eddy and Jones –is much smaller than what is available for children in other communities and was initially designed as a place for seniors to sit, not for kids to play (and while it is being redesigned, it will not grow in size).
Allowing the greenbelt at Civic Center Plaza to sit fallow while nearby children are desperate for recreational space is akin to having a large pool in Civic Center and not allowing nearby children to swim.
One inspiring idea that folks are moving on is to replicate Bryant Park’s great success with an ice skating rink at Civic Center Plaza from mid-November to mid-February each year. Proponents call this “the Pond at Civic Center Plaza,” and all proceeds would go to the San Francisco Parks Trust.
The ice skating available at the Embarcadero in December is so popular that it is often overcrowded. What better way to energize the area than by offering a great opportunity for nearby low-income kids as well as those of all incomes citywide by transforming Civic Center Plaza into a winter wonderland.
Civic Center Plaza should have public, free of charge yoga classes as occurs in Bryant Park. And regular small-scale music events to attract visitors and serenade those eating or sitting nearby.
What about “the Homeless”?Civic Center Plaza remains underutilized for two main reasons.
First, it has always been a dead zone so that is all the public knows. In contrast, people remembered Bryant Park before dealers controlled it, so there was a positive vision of the past that compelled restoration efforts.
Second, and the far more significant reason, is fear that “the homeless” will undermine Civic Center Plaza improvement efforts. This is largely based on the “Camp Agnos” period in which homeless persons were allowed to sleep in the park, triggering policies that discourage the poor – and everyone else – from sitting in the Plaza to this day.
Bryant Park has many homeless persons, but they have not deterred its success. The reason is that whereas Civic Center Plaza is not a destination for working people, Bryant Park is – and the visibly homeless are vastly outnumbered.
A private company, which enforces park rules and whose non-public status might not be politically acceptable in San Francisco, manages Bryant Park. But some make far too much of the “privatization” of Bryant Park, and public or nonprofit employees could provide equivalent services at Civic Center Plaza.
If we turned much of the Plaza into recreational uses, added yoga, music, and other programs, and installed destination food carts, Civic Center Park could be reclaimed without harassment of – or interference with – the visible poor. Nobody wins under the Plaza’s current under-utilization, and public spaces across the nation are being revived despite similar concerns.
San Francisco’s Civic Center has not met its potential for a century. If Chicago, New York City and other cities can turn failed public spaces into successful recreational and outdoor venues, San Francisco can as well.
Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.